She died at age fifty. Not too young anymore but definitely not old. She had insulin-dependent diabetes. She was diagnosed at a young age. She didn’t just die of some accident or disease; she killed herself. Serene was her name. How ironic. Her life turned out to be everything but calm, everything but peaceful and untroubled. She grew up in a dysfunctional family with an inept father, a sister, and a brother. That brother was the only one who managed to escape the village and a sad fate. I was told that Serene and her siblings were faraway cousins to me, although I never understood what that meant. The intricacies of my genealogy tree and the various relationships among its members, if not within the immediate family, have never been clear to me.
Serene’s mom, Atessa, died in her early thirties of an ictus, a cerebral thrombosis. There is nothing else that can be done. Her life is now holding on to a thin thread, the doctors reluctantly and apologetically announced to her husband as he, I heard, was tightly grasping his hat with both his hands, his mouth agape, while slowly getting up from a white metal chair in the white waiting room of the hospital.
Atessa agonized for a few days at home. Then she exhaled her last breath, leaving behind three beautiful children and a useless husband. If he was the one to die, things would have turned out better for everybody, I often heard other relatives whisper to one another. Atessa would have taken much better care of the children. There is no substitute for a good mother. They would have had fewer troubles and a happier life.
My parents went to visit the family after Atessa was brought back home from the hospital. I was very young but I have memories of that visit.
Atessa’s family lived in a beautiful villa on top of a sunny hill, surrounded by green meadows. I remember thinking that I would have loved to live there. But then I saw Atessa in the darkness of her deathbed, her eyes rolled back, her breathing harsh, her once beautiful face now swollen and deformed. A deep sadness came on to me, and nothing about that house seemed desirable any longer.
My parents and Atessa’s husband, a tall, skinny man with ill-fitting clothes whom I was told to call uncle, asked me and the children to go and play outside. I guess the adults wanted to talk freely about the enormity of that tragedy and keep us from peeking into Atessa’s bedroom, although it was customary to let children go at the bedside of the dying.
I led the way as we walked down the hallway and left the house in silence. We immediately started to run toward the wildflower fields without making a sound. There was no laughter, no screaming. Our ears were filled by the high-pitched chirping of the swallows and our lungs by the fragrant spring air.
We raced all the way to the edge of the woods. I remember the three siblings refusing to go any further. They seemed scared of the dark path ahead, which looked impenetrable to sunlight. Their parents had told them not to go into the woods alone. Wild boars would occasionally come down from the surrounding mountains looking for food and could be dangerous.
I looked at the three children. There were no smiles on their pale, worried faces. They looked like little ghosts. I don’t ever remember them smiling. The death of their mom and what followed must have thrown them into a deep depression. The father was not a bad man, although he would scream and yell at them for the smallest things. He just didn’t quite know how to be of comfort to the children nor even to himself. He lived in a different world, a world of photography and filmmaking that took his attention away from the family. He was absent. The children grew up unwell, starved for affection and much-needed attention. They must have been fighting depression since young ages. The girls never recovered from the trauma. One of them, Sondra, earned a PhD in mathematics, but she never did anything with it. She never worked. She became a recluse, living in a large, old apartment back in the village left to her by her grandmother. She lived there with two dogs in total filth. Serene used to say Sondra had a hardened heart, that she was capable of loving only her dogs. But that was not true. My mom said that after Serene died, she would hardly leave the house. She would sit in the kitchen in almost total darkness and feed the dogs what she should have cooked for herself, whispering songs to them.
Serene had diabetes and needed insulin to control her blood sugar level. Her grandmother had diabetes too and had died of the complications that came with it. I remember her: a thin, small woman with fine features, long, silky white hair gathered in a bun, pale skin, and blue eyes. I remember her struggle with ingrown toenails and the painful extractions that she had to endure. The diagnosis of diabetes is a tough one to swallow, and when people are that young, like Serene was at the time of her diagnosis, when they don’t have any support and they are already struggling with deep feelings of sadness and depression, then there is no way they’ll ever win that battle. Short of a miracle, they are doomed. There were no miracles in Serene’s life and so she was doomed.
One year, in late summer, Serene became very sick with a foot infection and ended up in the small, local hospital. My mom, who was down in the village at that time, went to visit her. Serene told her she didn’t want to live anymore. She said she was tired of it and wanted to leave. She began to refuse her medications. After discharge from the hospital, she started eating a lot of sweets and skipping the insulin injections until she stopped them altogether. Her aunt Marisa saw her before Christmas and said that Serene looked very old and emaciated. She had lost a bunch of hair and a lot of weight; her skin was gray and all wrinkles.
Serene very well knew that stopping the insulin injections and eating sweets would have been the end of her, and she did it on purpose. It was the only way to put an end to her painful life without a clamorous gesture like jumping out of the window or overdosing on medications. It was a suicide by omission, and it was well thought out, without last-moment regrets. She killed herself slowly and could have stopped anytime, but she didn’t because she truly wanted to go. She was determined to die. Death was her way out, maybe the only thing she felt she had control over, the only way to free herself of so much pain.
My mom said she was relieved that Serene was not among us any longer because she knew how bad her life had been, and finally now she wasn’t suffering anymore. There was truth to that, but the fact that she wasn’t suffering anymore wasn’t of much consolation to me. I thought of all the things that could and should have happened to change the course of her life, all the misery that could have been avoided or lessened, but nothing happened, and nothing could have been changed any longer. I didn’t help either. I was so far away, gone for so long. I never really had much of a relationship with any of the three cousins. I was raised in another region. Then, as I grew up, I proceeded to move from city to city, from country to country, shredding many of the already thin threads of my genealogy tree. I have realized, over time, that those children were not the only ones I had left behind and forgotten about.
I hadn’t forgotten everything, though: one episode continued to haunt me, maybe because I’ve always regretted the way I behaved. I was about seven or eight, and we were at a campsite right on the beach. My family invited the uncle and the three cousins to come and visit. Their mother was already gone. My parents gave me some money and told me to go to the bar with the children and buy them an ice cream. So we went together but when I got there, I came up with an excuse not to buy them anything because I wanted to keep the money for myself. My parents never gave me any allowance, and when I found that money in my hands, I had a hard time letting go of it. Earlier in the day I had seen a cute necklace with a starfish pendant and thought that I could have used the money to buy that instead of the ice cream. I remember us sitting at a table on the bar deck. I can still see those sad little faces and me coming up with a stupid excuse not to spend the money. I said that since we already ate cookies and chocolate and drank sparkling lemonade at the beach, the ice cream wasn’t really necessary. The moment I said that, I so very much regretted it. I knew it was wrong but went ahead with my little scheme nevertheless. I was a child, maybe too young and selfish to understand that small gestures of kindness go a long way, but shouldn’t I have bought them the biggest, most delicious ice cream there was on the menu, and hugged them and been extra kind to them, knowing how unhappy they were?
What happened to the lives of those children? Were they ever happy? Did they ever feel loved? What is this life about, if human beings have so much trouble going through it? They say that life is not what happens to us, it’s what we make out of it, placing a lot of emphasis on our inner strength and our ability to overcome difficulties of all sorts. This statement makes the assumption that every human being should be capable of summoning that strength and coming out on top, despite the misery of their own personal circumstances and the constraints of their own genetic makeup. Granted that some people might be able to do just that, I don’t think it’s possible or realistic to expect it of everyone or to blame those who can’t. Ideally it would be wonderful to turn lemons into lemonade or, even better, into Limoncello, but this is not going to happen because, since birth, human beings have to reckon with the cards they’ve been dealt. These cards can be really challenging ones, and they come in the form of broken, dysfunctional, underprivileged families, medical disease, poverty, physical and mental challenges, abusive environments, lack of support, and unfortunate zip codes.
Some people, fueled by faith, hope, and personal beliefs, are able to struggle through life all the way to the bitter end. Others will kill themselves. Others, like Serene, stop doing what keeps them alive, because you don’t have to put a gun to your head or in your mouth to kill yourself. You don’t have to hang yourself, or slit your wrists, or jump out of the window, or overdose on pills. You can do it like she did. Slowly, willingly, without ever looking back. Or maybe it was the looking back that made her do it because all she saw was pain and abandonment.
Some people write letters when they decide to die. I wondered if Serene left one behind. I don’t believe she did, but her sister, Sondra, said that Serene wanted the people in her life to know that she carried no hard feelings toward them, although they might have disappointed or hurt her. Was I one of those people?
Sondra also said that Serene started talking more often about how much she wanted to see her mom again. Serene wondered if her mom was in a better place, a brighter place filled with love and peace, the things that neither one of them had on this Earth. Serene said that she felt like she didn’t belong to this world anymore; all she ever wanted was a chance to shine and be happy. Serene had searched for something that was not here, and she had no hope she could ever find it. Her life had been a heartache, and she wanted to forget it all and be free. Sondra said that Serene used to listen to a song of Macy Gray, a song about a letter, and would sing along and whisper, while looking at her, don’t be sad for me.
Sometimes, in the twilight of my dreams, I see myself and my three cousins running again toward the woods and hesitating for a moment as we enter the dark, shaded path, smiling at each other and holding hands.